Many of this year’s bestsellers have something in common, but it’s not one of the usual factors: a famous or long-established author, a connection to a movie or a TV show.
Early last year, the publishing industry noticed that the books readers were raving about on TikTok — the social media platform that trades short videos — were appearing on best-seller lists. Publishers were surprised, authors were surprised, even the readers who made these TikTok videos were surprised.
A year later, the #BookTok hashtag has become a lasting and powerful force in the world of books, helping to create some of the biggest sellers out there.
Books by writer Colleen Hoover, for example, became a TikTok sensation, and Ms. Hoover is now one of the best-selling authors in the country. NPD BookScan, which tracks sales of most printed books in the United States, said Ms. Hoover has written four of the top 10 best-selling books so far this year.
TikTok has “made the transition from a novelty to a real anchor for the market,” said Kristen McLean, executive director of business development at NPD Books. “The whole idea of dominating supermarket shelves, dominating airport stores, dominating the front desks in bookstores just isn’t what it is.”
BookTok is one of the leading forces in adult literature today and has helped authors sell 20 million printed books in 2021, according to BookScan. So far this year, those sales are up another 50 percent. NPD Books said no other form of social media has ever had such an impact on sales.
BookTok is not dominated by the usual rulers in the book world like authors and publishers, but by regular readers, many of them young, who share recommendations and videos of themselves talking about the books they love, sometimes crying or screaming or throwing a copy across the room.
The most popular videos generally don’t offer any information about the book’s author, the writing, or even the plot like a traditional review does. Instead, readers speak openly about the emotional journey a book will offer.
And it turns out that’s exactly what a lot of people are looking for, said Milena Brown, director of marketing at Doubleday.
“‘This is how I feel about it, and this is how it makes you feel,'” Ms. Brown described the content of many of the videos. “And people say, ‘I want to feel that. Give it to me!'”
Essentially, BookTok improves on something that has always been essential to selling a book: word of mouth.
“I think one person can get it on the radar, but it takes the rest of BookTok to step in and make it big to make a book really successful,” said Laynie Rose Rizer, associate store manager at East City Bookshop in Washington . DC, who has 70,000 followers on the platform. “As soon as word gets around, a book becomes big.”
Books that take off there are mostly fiction and usually a few years old. This is unusual in publishing, where most titles, if they have any sales spurt at all, see it right away.
Sales were originally focused on young adult titles, but BookTok is now even stronger in adult literature, according to BookScan. Romance is another big category, closely followed by science fiction and fantasy. But classics like Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby also get some TikTok love.
Another big beneficiary of the TikTok craze is writer Madeline Miller. Ms. Miller, a former high school teacher with a master’s degree in classical studies, her most successful book is The Song of Achilles, a love story between two young men, Achilles and Patroclus.
It was published in 2012 with an initial print run of 20,000 copies. This month, its publisher Ecco announced that it has sold two million copies across all formats.
Miriam Parker, co-editor of Ecco, said this kind of sales record for a book like The Song of Achilles is more than remarkable.
“That never happens,” she said. “This is a book about the Iliad!”
Ms Miller, who has another book, Circe, which was also popular on TikTok, said she is now being taken more seriously in the literary world due to the higher profile of her work. The sale was also a relief at what was an extremely challenging time.
When the pandemic hit, her lecturing and touring opportunities dried up and she figured she might need to go back to teaching to make a living. As of February 2020, she has been struggling with Covid for a long time and worried about her ability to work, she said. After “Song of Achilles” caught fire on TikTok, she was able to take care of herself and her family and continue working on her next novel.
“It really changed my life,” she said. “It gave me the time to write to continue being a writer.”
Part of TikTok’s success in selling books can be attributed to bookstores starting to pay attention to which books are gaining traction on the platform, Ms McLean said. Above all, Barnes & Noble prevailed early on; Many of its stores provide charts with a selection of trending stocks. These displays spread the word about BookTok to new readers, and the cycle continued.
This week, TikTok and Barnes & Noble announced an official partnership — a summer reading challenge designed to encourage people to post about the books they’re reading and inspire readers. A BookTok landing page shows users some curated videos, including a selection titled “Meet your local B&N bookseller” and a list of suggested titles that links to Barnes & Noble’s website. Barnes & Noble will have QR codes in its stores that will direct customers to the BookTok landing page.
Barnes & Noble stores have their own TikTok channels, as do many publishers. Publishers also send TikTok creators free books or pay them to create videos on specific titles. But as powerful as BookTok has become, it’s difficult for publishers to leverage it as a sales tool.
“It’s not a single video that skyrockets a book’s sales,” said Ms. Brown of Doubleday. “It’s that grassroots explosion of people making the videos, and then it grows organically, through word of mouth, from there.”
Even getting an author on the platform, for example, is no guarantee for the success of a book. It’s not even a requirement.
“I’m still not on TikTok,” Ms. Miller said. “I continue to be very bad at social media.”